In 1961, an unknown author, Joseph Heller, published a novel that was truly revolutionary - Catch-22. It was the story of a bombardier assigned to a US Army Aircorps outfit that was fighting the Germans in Italy. Contrary to other novels and books written about WWII, Catch-22 had no heroes, no great battle scenes, no triumphant endgame of victory at any cost. Instead, it had a lead character named Yossarian who spent every waking hour trying to figure out how to stay alive. It wasn't easy. The officers, his fellow soldiers and the Germans were all trying to kill him - in that order.
The phrase, Catch-22, did not exist before Heller's novel - it became a catchphrase for the insanity of life due to the popularity of his novel. The phrase originates when Doc Daneeka explains to Yossarian why he can't ground a fellow soldier, Orr, even though everyone knows Orr is crazy. You see, Doc explains, I have to ground any soldier who is crazy and Orr is crazy but before I can ground him, he has to ask to be grounded. So, Yossarian says, all Orr has to do to get grounded is ask? No, explains Doc Daneeka, if Orr asks me to ground him, then I can't ground him because only a sane person would ask to be grounded. So, Yossarian sums up, Orr is crazy and can get grounded but only if he asks - but, if he asks, then he's not crazy so he can't be grounded. And that is Catch-22.
In 1970, the book was adapted for the screen by Buck Henry and directed by Mike Nichols. Nichols had made two movies up to then, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate. To say the least, he was on a roll. It ended with Catch-22. While there are a lot of great things in the movie, it was impossible to put on the screen, in one movie, the dozens of incredible characters and outrageous stories that made up Catch-22. Alan Arkin gave a masterful performance as Yossarian, but the movie never caught on and was a critical and commercial failure.
So, when I heard that HULU was making Catch-22 into a series, I thought - yes, that's what Catch-22 needs, several hours of time to bring to life the incredible story of a man trying to stay alive in an insane world. I was wrong.
HULU's Catch-22, written by Luke Davis and David Michod, is not Heller's or even Buck Henry's Catch-22. Instead, it is as if Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy teamed up to re-make Catch-22. Yossarian is transformed from one of the great characters of American literature into a soldier who wants to stay alive - in other words, just like every other soldier. Yossarian is, I find this hard to write, not only patriotic, but a good soldier whose only crime is that he wants to go home. When he meets Heller's take on the ultimate victim of war, the rookie tail gunner, Snowden, he tries to comfort him like a big brother. Oh, where are the Snowden's of Heller's masterpiece?
How is this series different than the book? Well, first and foremost, there are not many laughs in this series. In HULU's Catch-22, Yossarian is a top-notch bombardier but in Heller's, he is demoted from lead bombardier because he refuses to wait until his plane is over the target before dropping his bombs since his only concern is to get back alive from every mission. Making Yossarian 'brave' is like some streaming studio re-making The Great Gatsby, but his time, Gatsby lives and marries Daisy. I could go on and on, but just let me say - I read Catch-22, many times, I know Catch-22 and HULU, this is not Catch-22.
Joseph Heller died in 1999. His estate has not done him a favor by greenlighting this version of his great novel. In fact, since TV is way more popular than any other medium, it is likely that many people will think that the HULU series is an accurate rendering of the novel. Sad. HULU's series resembles Heller's book in the same way that light beer resembles beer - and even that is not strong enough to convey what HULU has done. They have taken a chisel to Heller's David, a crayon to his Mona Lisa, dropped a bomb on his Notre Dame. They have defaced a great work of art.
The only good thing that can come from this hack job is if more people end up reading the book. If you haven't already, you are in for a real treat.